Monday, March 13, 2017

An Introductory Word or Two (from Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward)

What follows is the introduction to my recently published book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward to give you an idea of the tone and subject matter of the book. This book can be purchased at either in paperback form or as a Kindle e-book. For more information, please contact me directly at or search for my name on

Today in our world and in our country, as we confront so many different challenges and threats to our collective and individual well-being, we constantly look for support for our soul and our well-being. While religion and what one believes should and can offer such support, the degree to which it does so is often a hot controversial topic. Not of course, that this is a new phenomenon. Religion has always been so much at the core of our beings as humans, whether we individually admit this to be the case or not. In fact, in cultural and ethnographic studies, religion is one of the core markers of any people being studied. (1)

One cannot study European History, Ancient History or any other people’s story and narrative without speaking of religion. For Ancient Man, as well as for many tribal and land based cultures and people today, religion is still at the core of their individual as well as collective beings. Simply, for many, if not most people throughout history, religion has been an exclamation mark – the Of Course! of their lives. This is especially true for those who are closer to the land, as the land they work and depend upon, and the Higher Being to whom they pray for sustenance from the land are clearly connected in a visceral way that is core to daily life. Religion provides responses to questions that elude us in the more tangible aspects of our lives, and as such, provides a support that is specific and unique to its context alone.

As an expression of this sentiment, look at these words of George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh) as recorded by Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999):

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children …

And whenever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him (God) who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth – but to be born in Nature’s wide domain is greater still!

For those of us in the modern industrialized and technologically advanced world, however, God and God’s presence in our lives has apparently become more and more of a question mark. Namely, we ask, “Is there a Higher Being, and do I care?” Do I need a Higher Being? Do I believe? What do I believe? Why should I believe? Because we question instead of exclaim our beliefs, does this mean that religion is no longer at the core of our being?

In the throes of addressing the results of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we are dealing with an American population in which 16.1% claim that they do not affiliate with any religion. Further, this number is reported to be double that of those who say they were unaffiliated as children, reflecting a movement away from what would clearly be labeled normative expressions of religion in more individual lives as we continue on our present trajectory (3).

Through my career, I have had many opportunities to address these issues as an instructor, lecturer, and head of schools and educational systems; and as an avid observer, as well as a self-identified person of faith. One of the seasons which I have found often raises the issue of identity with religion to the point of hyper-awareness in the United States is that of the winter weeks leading up to Christmas. There is no surprise here, given the commercialism and obvious “front and center” of the season, in addition to the obvious profound meaning of the time.

That being said, my experience has been that something else is going on. As one measure of the impact of this observance on the non-Christian members of American society, one need only observe the proliferation of options for Jewish families and community members as alternatives for this day of obvious importance to so many. Further, I have often found on an annual basis, the issue of what winter decorations and religious symbols appear in our public spaces becomes an item on the agenda of school boards and agencies as an interesting point of angst. When I held various leadership posts in different regions throughout my career, communities and individuals would often contact me about their discomfort regarding the visual evidence of the Christmas season. In my work with these communities, I tried to convey the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching that religion as an institution with its many forms has a value” to us as individuals, groups and a national entity.

At its foundation, religion as a system of thought and faith as well as its potential in conveyance of meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions provides us with a unique and singular synergy as it touches the very core of our beings with the comfort it provides through a belief in something bigger than us and beyond the daily regimen of our busy lives, so filled with technology, industrious undertakings, and efficient use of time. Many would agree that it still remains the Of Course! in our hectic lives, whether or not we recognize it as such.

In more recent years in the United States of America, we have witnessed attempts to remove the words “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance, legal proceedings have been pursued to remove sculptured representations of The Ten Commandments in several American cities, and stirrings are occasionally heard regarding the same feelings of discomfort having the words “In God we trust” on our currency and the various references to God in our songs of national pride. Clearly, the operational meaning of separation of church and state is being tested, retested, and perhaps even redefined in a manner far different from what we were taught was intended by the founders of these United States of America. This is somewhat ironic as we remember that the notion of our national forefathers was to permit all Americans to worship as they like and prefer, but to be free to worship nonetheless, not to the exclusion of those who wish to exercise their prerogative to not do so.

This was a radical departure from most places and spaces in our collective history of the world (as well as what is still present in many regions around our globe today), in which one’s national identity, cultural life and religion were a package deal, very often defined by the ruler of the land in which one lived. The American separation of church and state was precisely intended to teach all to value the notion of religious belief in a manner most appropriate and meaningful to them – that is, to encourage religious practices and beliefs, ALL religious practices and beliefs, without the “state” determining which “church” such practices and beliefs would have to conform to for any individual.

Conversely, way over on the opposite side of the continuum of belief and meaningful living from those who would turn their back on religion and its various instructions and frames to enable and support our lives, Fundamentalism has truly become a formidable challenge for so many of us in our contemporary world. As increasing numbers of members of our society become more liberal and less rooted in their treasured past on the left side of our cultural continuum, on its right side we have compelling instances of whole groups, communities, even nations who have literally closed their eyes and minds to any shade of these more liberal, some would say less principled, approaches to life. For some, it’s even simpler than that; with adherents claiming that if you do not believe exactly as I do and do as I do, you are rendered as persona non-gratis! As a result, these forces have become stubbornly rigid in what they believe to be the most stringent definition of their respective religious communities. In short, our world is increasingly being painted in black and white distinct color blocks; while many have worked so hard for generations to achieve a moderate approach of understanding that so much of life ultimately and truly happens in the variegated gray zone.

So, how do we reconcile this dynamic? How do we balance our allegiance and valuing of the past and its rootedness as well as the lessons learned from its sources with a more measured and positive outlook for our future? How do we take chances and strive for more meaning and substance in our lives in a synchronistic manner that encompasses and protects the valuing of all shades of belief systems? This is the question, which is explored here; and the search at hand, and a challenging and sometimes exhausting search it is!

I do want to note that the voice of this book is definitely based in Jewish thinking and texts. That being said, all are welcome to engage in the thinking and dialogue that I hope will evolve as a result of reading these essays. It is more about the fact that we may believe than the specifics of what that system of belief is. In that spirit, please use the Jewish texts here as emblematic of a system of belief from which the intrinsic thoughts and questions are extrapolated and feel free to do the same within other systems of belief and thought, also represented here at points.

There will be many questions in this book and it is intended that we read this thoughtfully and slowly, pausing to consider and answer these questions. Imagine reading this manuscript in a meditative mode, letting into your soul the questions, journeys and experiences of those that have gone before us as we consider the questions of our own journeys and experiences. You might even want to keep a journal nearby in which you can write your own thoughts and truly become a participant in the intended discussion that is this collection of essays and thoughts in any way that is meaningful. This book is much more about the questions asked than the various approaches provided; in fact each chapter will end with Questions for Continued Thought and Discussion. Welcome on what I hope will be a shared and meaningful journey, where we accept challenges that are thrown our way and use them to strengthen our own approaches in attempting to live a meaningful and important life.

Questions unite, answers divide. Martin Buber (and attributed to so many others as well)


(1) Cultural anthropologists have long studied the elements that define a society and religion is clearly a central factor. For a brief survey of this work, the reader is referred to Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Editor. USA: Hartford Institute, for Religion Research,

(2) Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999) relates in writing stories and lore of the Native Americans. There was a great controversy regarding committing to writing these generationally transmitted stories through telling, such an important element of the continuation of the Native American culture and community. Pages 3 – 4 are quoted here.

(3) Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, January 8, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment